Irish Traditional Music
The Music of the Gaels
By John Lynch
With Irish folk and traditional music now enjoying growing popularity both at home and abroad among specialists and mainstreamers alike, it is worth exploring how it attained present-day media status.  Without endeavouring to trace the origins of the songs and tunes of the peasantry, or indeed wondering how they made their way from cow-house to concert hall, we can, nonetheless, get a good inkling of their current circulation by touching briefly on the recordings, people and events of the 20th century.
The great famine of the 1840's in Ireland and its aftermath led to mass emigration, mostly to America, where the first recordings of Irish music were made, on wax cylinders and shellac discs.  The mostly widely regarded of these, and by whom material is still available, were Galway-born piper, Patsy Tuohy (1865-1923) Sligo fiddler, Michael Coleman (1891-1945) and Westmeath concertina player, Willie Mullally (1884-1950's).  The Wall Street crash of 1929 marked a fall-off in the US recording industry and its re-emergence in the mid-to-late 1930's was more commercially viable to the oncoming big band scene than to Irish music soloists or small groups.
The forerunner of RTE, Ireland's national broadcasting body, 2rn radio, commenced transmission on new year's night, 1926.  Though music programming was mostly of a traditional Irish nature, air time was limited and not many homes had wireless sets.  In those days, hotels, post offices and parish priests were their main owners.  Recordings, too, were thin on the ground and thus, the American-made ones were sent back to Ireland and became the standard-setters for then aspiring musicians.
In 1938, the Irish Folklore Commission was founded, with the aim of collecting songs and stories for preservation.  Working with them was a man who could well be considered the Irish equivalent of renowned English folksong collector, Cecil Sharpe: namely, Seamus Ennis (1919-1982). Coming from a county Dublin family steeped in musical tradition, Ennis was ideally suited to his post and was subsequently employed by both Raidio Eireann and the BBC.  Though his main instrument being the uilleann pipes, he was, in his own words, "a jack of all trades and master of most!"  Realising the value of his art, Seamus Ennis recorded his many talents for posterity, at a time when Irish and folk music generally was held in low regard by those in positions of power and influence, particularly among musical society.
But the man who was to change forever the whole image of Irish traditional music was himself to come from the echelons of educated musicology: Sean O Riada (1931-1971).  Having attained a degree from university in his native Cork, where he was later to lecture, O Riada was appointed musical director of Raidio Eireann in 1953, but resigned within two years, due to what could be termed boredom with the post. In 1959, he composed the orchestral score for the film "Mise Eire" (I Am Ireland), at that time seen as a new departure for soundtracking.
In the early 1960's, in addition to presenting a fourteen-part radio series, "Our Musical Heritage" (1962), O Riada formed an ensemble, Ceoltoiri Chualann (associated musicians) the nucleus of whom were later to become the internationally-renowned Chieftains.  He used this group to expound his sometimes controversial views on how, in his opinion, the music should be approached.  He played harpsichord with them, featured Bantry-born singer, Sean O Se and the group recorded recorded radio and television programmes, besides making records for the Gael-linn company.
Four examples of how Sean O Riada succeeded in broadening the appeal of Irish music, in my view, would be:
a)  Arrangement for group playing, as opposed to ceili band hammerouts;
b)  Concert performance for the listener, rather than playing for dancers and/or in pubs;
c)  proper use of the bodhran (goatskin drum) as a means of percussion; and
d)  The revival of interest in the compositions of blind harper, Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738).
Two instruments to come to the fore since O Riada's demise are the harp and concertina.  In 1973, Derek Bell (1935-2002), then harpist with the Belfast Symphony Orchestra, joined the Chieftains, but it was Maire Ni Chathasaigh (b. 1956), a native of Bandon, West Cork, who pioneered the playing of dance music on this instrument.
Clare has long been regarded as the concertina county, and it was Noel Hill (b. 1958) from its western side, who developed techniques whereby this small instrument can equal fiddle and pipes in terms of ornamentation and skill.
The foremost organisation for the teaching of Irish music, song and dance at grassroots level is Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (fellowship of Irish musicians).  This voluntary body was founded in 1951 at Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, to preserve native Irish entertainment, at that time thought to be dying out.  
Operating along local lines, branches of CCE were formed in various towns and villages throughout Ireland by enthusiasts, who organise their annual 'fleadh cheoil' (pron. flah keyole, music feast) at county and provincial levels, culminating with the all-Ireland Fleadh, held at a chosen venue at the end of August.  Competitions, which can court controversy, form the basis of a Fleadh at all age levels, but a Fleadh otherwise can be more of a social occasion, as most people just go along for "the craic".
CCE also have many branches throughout the UK and USA, and it is quite often the case that youngsters there produce better quality music than their homegrown counterparts: a question of tuition.  Their present headquarters are in Monstown, Dublin.
Another major happening in the traditional music calendar is the annual Willie Clancy Summer School, held every first July week in Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare.  Named in honour of the local piper (1918-1973), this event brings together the cream of the country's talent and comprises of classes, lectures and concerts, not to mention almost round-the-clock informal sessions.
Like the Irish language, traditional music is mainly confined to certain counties such as Clare, Galway and others along the western seaboard.  It has, however, made steady inroads to some parts of the country where hitherto not much heard. In areas where it is not part of normal socialisation, it is practised by families or individual enthusiasts who come together for local sessions.  Playing standards can vary in accordance with location but modern means of communication are seeing to the phasing-out of regional styles, for so long the hallmark of traditional musicianship in concentrated areas.
Other contributing factors to the present state of Irish music popularity were the folk revival and celtic rock scenes of the 1960's and 70's.  These resulted in greater marketing ability from record company standpoints and enabled groups, such as Planxty, the Bothy Band, Clannad, De Danann, etc. to tour the world and pave the way for more contemporary-type fusions whose roots stem from "the ould sod".
It remains to be seen how the scene will evolve in the immediate or long-term future, but the general opinion appears to be that since Sean O Riada first brought it to public notice in the early 1960's, traditional Irish music has come a long way and is, undoubtedly, here to stay.
(The above article first appeared in the June 1999 issue of Braille Music Magazine, published in the UK.)  © John Lynch 2006